U.S.
SITE Intelligence Group / AP

Declassified memo reveals US justification of drone strikes on Americans

DOJ memo from 2010 says killing of Anwar al-Awlaki was legal because the US citizen was 'operational leader' of Al-Qaeda

A federal appeals court on Monday released a previously secret memo in which the U.S. Department of Justice provided legal justification for using drones to kill Americans suspected of links to Al-Qaeda operations overseas.

The memo concluded that the September 2011 drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Al-Qaeda leader, was legally justified. The memo said that because the U.S. government considered Awlaki to be an "operational leader" of an "enemy force," it was legal for the CIA to attack him with a drone as part of the United States' ongoing “armed conflict with Al-Qaeda," even though he was a U.S. citizen.

The memo, initially drafted in 2010, said the killing was further justified under Congressional authorization for the use of U.S. military force following the Sept. 11 attacks.

The document noted that the authority to use lethal force abroad might apply in appropriate circumstances to a U.S. citizen who is part of the forces of an enemy organization. It said the Awlaki killing in Yemen was justified as long as it was carried out in accord with applicable laws of war.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan released the memo, portions of which are blacked out, after the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU lawyer who argued the case before the 2nd Circuit, said the memo's release "represents an overdue but nonetheless crucial step towards transparency. There are few questions more important than the question of when the government has the authority to kill its own citizens."

Awlaki was killed in what U.S. officials acknowledged at the time was a CIA drone strike in Yemen on Sept. 30, 2011. Another American citizen, Samir Khan, was killed in the same attack, although U.S. officials have said that Khan was not intentionally targeted.

Although other Americans have appeared in Internet postings or propaganda as spokesmen or representatives for Al-Qaeda or its affiliates, Awlaki is the only American citizen who U.S. government officials have acknowledged was directly targeted for a U.S. drone strike.

Some legal scholars and human rights activists complained that it was illegal for the U.S. to kill American citizens away from the battlefield without a trial.

Pardiss Kebriaei, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, said the memo's justification was based on "highly aggressive and controversial interpretations of international law." 

Lawyers for the Times and ACLU had said that the government's continued delays regarding the document were cheating the public of a fully informed and fair debate over the highly classified "targeted-killing" program.

Wire services

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